What is It?
Tea tree oil is an essential oil obtained by steam distillation of the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a plant native to Australia.
Pure, undiluted tea tree oil is found in health food stores and online. Tea tree oil is also an ingredient in a number of commercial products, such as gels, lotions, creams, toothpaste, mouthwashes, and shampoos.
Why is it Used for Acne?
Tea tree oil contains a constituent called terpinen-4-ol that is thought to be responsible for most of tea tree oil's antimicrobial activity. Because tea tree oil can kill bacteria, applying topical tea tree oil to acne lesions has been thought to destroy Propionibacterium acnes, the skin-dwelling bacteria that is involved in the development of acne.
Although tea tree oil is a popular remedy for acne, there have been few studies on tea tree oil and acne.
A single-blind, randomized study by the Department of Dermatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Australia compared the effectiveness and tolerance of 5 percent tea tree oil gel with 5 percent benzoyl peroxide lotion in 124 people with mild to moderate acne. People in both groups had a significant reduction in inflamed and non-inflamed acne lesions (open and closed comedones) over the three month period. Although the tea tree oil took longer to work initially, there were fewer side effects with tea tree oil. In the benzoyl peroxide group, 79 percent of people had side effects including itching, stinging, burning, and dryness. Researchers noted that there were far fewer side effects in the tea tree oil group.A smaller study published in 2007 involved 60 people with mild to moderate acne who were treated with either a gel containing 5 percent tea tree oil or a placebo for 45 days. Researchers found that the tea tree oil worked better than the placebo in reducing the severity and number of acne lesions.
Large double-blind, randomized controlled trials are needed before we can determine the effectiveness of tea tree oil for acne.
Should It Be Applied Undiluted to Acne?
Undiluted tea tree oil may cause skin irritation, redness, blistering, overdrying, and itching when applied directly to the skin.
The concentration used in studies was a 5 percent tea tree oil solution, which was applied to acne prone areas.
A 5 percent tea tree oil solution can be made by mixing 5 parts tea tree oil to 95 parts water (e.g. 5 mL tea tree oil and 95 mL water).
What About Commercial Products?
There are a number of new topical acne products that contain tea tree oil. Have a look at the skin care aisle of the health food store. There should be a selection of topical tea tree oil gels, some containing other herbal antiseptics, such as witch hazel. Another place to look would be the drug store or a cosmetics store. There may be products that combine benzoyl peroxide with tea tree oil.
What are the Safety Concerns?
To learn about the safety concerns of tea tree oil, please read the Tea Tree Oil Fact Sheet.
Other Remedies for Acne
Besides tea tree oil, there are other natural remedies used for acne, such as a low glycemic load diet, dairy-free diet, zinc, and herbs. Learn about these Remedies for Acne.
Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS. A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoylperoxide in the treatment of acne. Med J Aust. (1990) 153 (8): 455-458.
Enshaieh S, Jooya A, Siadat AH, Iraji F. The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. (2007) 73 (1): 22-25.